As we begin the new year, I’ve been thinking a lot about the broader meaning of the election and what challenges may await the candidate who wins in November. I’m struck at how much damage exists on so many fronts and how much repair work must be done by the new administration.
The mishandling of Katrina left Americans with the uncertain feeling that our nation will not be ready to handle the next major disaster. So it comes as no surprise that Americans fervently want the federal government to be able to step up to the plate when a disaster strikes. I still believe that when we look back to this period in American history, Katrina will prove to be more of a defining moment in American history than the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
This presidential election is in many ways about rebuilding bridges. Can the next president rebuild the bridge between the American people and their government? Americans are still concerned about national security in the traditional sense, but the economy and health care are among the top issues for Americans as we head toward the general election. Combined, they may be more important than Iraq. I’ve also identified 2008 as a “1932 moment,” when Franklin Roosevelt took on the major task of redefining federalism during a time when the country seemed badly broken.
Consider the collapse of the Mississippi River bridge this summer in Minneapolis, which caused many Americans to ask serious questions about our roads and bridges and, to a great degree, our airports. We mostly take our infrastructure for granted—until it fails. Now, Americans wonder if their government is prepared to deal with the next bridge failure.
To address this nagging question in the back of the minds of many Americans, they tell us that, first and foremost, they want their next president to be a competent manager.
Second, Americans want their next president to build a bridge to the opposite political party. Can we get past the partisanship? The American people are showing they’re ready, but they suspect Washington is not.
On the Sunday talk shows, I’m struck by how few times I hear Republicans and Democrats referring to each other as “my good friend.” Part of this is a function of the modern Congress, which forces members to travel home nearly every weekend, instead of staying in D.C. and socializing with colleagues. It may also be a function of parties taking more responsibility for campaigns, which forces members to cater to party leaders and creates a hyper-partisanship. Once, members could work across the aisle; now, the party hierarchies punish members who dare to do so.
Third, likely voters tell us the next president needs to repair our bridge to the rest of the world. Our polling shows our image around the globe is the worst it has ever been. In Jordan, the U.S. earns just 3 percent favorable ratings. The U.S. also gets poor ratings in Europe. This at a time when the U.S. faces serious international competition, from manufacturing and military to commodities and currencies.
The Bush administration has focused much of its attention on the Middle East, and yet only recently did it take steps to deal with the decades-old issue of peace between Israel and Palestinians, and there is nothing yet to show for it. Americans are still hungry for solutions in that region of the world, and it may be profitable at last for the next president to make an effort there. A recent Zogby poll in Iowa and New Hampshire showed that a presidential candidate who pledged to work hard for a peace agreement between Israel and Palestinians could gain valuable support from likely voters.
Finally, nearly a decade into the 21st century, U.S. governments—local, state and national—are still fighting the battles of the Industrial Revolution. Likely voters wonder whether we as a nation are prepared to restore American innovation to deal with the global economy. Addressing these issues is the true bridge to the future. And it’s by far the most daunting of all political construction projects, because while the other bridges need only be repaired, this one has yet to be built.
John Zogby, president of Zogby International, is widely considered one of the world’s most accurate pollsters. You can comment on the Zogby Forums at Zogby.com.